Ganging up, Alison Gray

Patched: The History of Gangs in New Zealand
Jarrod Gilbert
Auckland University Press, $50.00,
ISBN 9781869407292

This is a very satisfying book, which is not always the case when a PhD turns into a paperback. It is well-organised, well-written and illuminating. While the publishers couldn’t resist indulging in some of the media hype that Jarrod Gilbert is wary of – describing it as “a violent and sometimes horrifying book” – the overall impression is one of balanced, even calm, reflection and careful analysis.

The themes Gilbert covers are, of course, pertinent to the changing fortunes of gangs, but they also apply to a much broader range of social groups. Poor people, single parents, beneficiaries, migrants, the unemployed and political activists of various shades have all been on the receiving end of attacks by politicians and the media, sometimes supported by the police. Most have been disproportionately affected by liberal market ideologies and economic reforms, and all at some time have been the subject of civic opprobrium and prejudice. Few, however, have developed such an organised and sometimes confronting response as the gangs.

Gilbert takes a chronological approach, covering the decades from the 1950s to the present. He highlights four critical points that have led to a reconfiguration of the gang scene, evidenced by changes in the gangs themselves, particular dramatic events, law changes, and shifts in public opinion. These developments in turn emerged from changes in the broader social and economic context, which affected the community’s awareness of and tolerance for gangs.

This book begins in the 1950s, when I was in primary school in Lower Hutt. I can still remember my parents discussing the Mazengarb report behind closed doors and banning us kids from going anywhere near the notorious Elbe Milk Bar. We had absolutely no idea what they were on about, but we knew it had something to do with people not much older than us, behaving very, very badly. Our minds fairly boggled. It was my first experience of a moral panic and it was a little bit scary.  I realise now that it was probably even scarier for my parents. The “juvenile delinquents” in the Elbe Milk Bar were all Pakeha. They looked like us, and they were right in our front yard – walking down our streets and sitting in the very booths where we ate our ice cream sundaes. No wonder my parents were afraid.

When the patched motorcycle and street gangs developed in the 1960s – the Hells Angels, Mongrel Mob and Black Power were the big names, but Gilbert identifies dozens of smaller groups – they didn’t seem so frightening. They were predominantly Maori and Pacific people, they didn’t live anywhere near us, and we had nothing in common with them.  In fact, the only time we ever saw them was on occasional trips out of town when they roared past on their bikes, going the other way. My parents frowned in the front but we were secretly excited in the back.

Gilbert points out that by the 1970s, the patched gangs were well established and well organised throughout New Zealand, but, despite their visibility and aggressive front, they posed no real threat to mainstream society. The enemy wasn’t us middle-class white people with our cosy homes and suburban lives, our education and our well-paid jobs. The enemy was other gangs. The fights were over territory and power, and eventually they spilled into our streets, or at least into the streets of the communities that had tolerated them so far. The fights got bigger and more dangerous; some gang members died, others clashed with the police. Something had to be done. This was the start of a debate which continues to this day, driven mainly by the politicians, the police and the media. What to do about the gangs, the public face of disaffection and alienation, uncomfortably visible, uncomfortably brown and uncomfortably in our face?

Muldoon’s solution in the early 1980s was in some ways inspired but in others too narrow. The Group Employment Liaison Service (GELS) was set up specifically to help gangs find employment. Black Power members were particularly successful contractors, well organised and with strong leadership, but it simply wasn’t enough to make the gangs “more like the rest of us”. The combination of the abrupt shift to economic liberalism in the late 1980s and detailed media reporting of the Ambury Park rape case in 1987 put an end to any public sympathy for the gangs. Police powers were greatly increased, the GELS scheme was abandoned, and as Gilbert notes, “gangs shifted from being seen as a symptom of wider social problems to a distinct cause of other social ills”.

That pattern has continued. It seems that society always needs scapegoats, and alienated groups in turn need other alienated groups to blame. As the economic climate worsened during the 1990s, white skinhead groups joined the gang ranks; the threat of Asian gangs was widely reported in the media, and patched gangs were increasingly linked to criminal activity, particularly in relation to the drug trade. Although Gilbert is able to demonstrate that profit-driven crime was never the main reason for the formation of the patched gangs, their involvement in criminal activity has remained the focus of police and political rhetoric.  They were grist to the mill for politicians, who fuelled waves of moral panic with threats of impending doom, culminating in Michael Laws’s ineffectual and ultimately illegal attempt to ban gang patches from Whanganui.

As the older gangs have matured and lost some of their appeal to the young, new gangs have emerged, possibly signalling the start of a new cycle. LA-style street gangs are evident in Auckland, and maybe they too will spread nationwide. Like their forebears, they are not saints. They can be brutish and violent to the point of murder, and they treat women appallingly – like domestic servants or sexual slaves. They are also the product of their social environment. They grow in depressed and marginalised communities, and they provide their members with a sense of identity and belonging.

They are easy to dislike and blame. Until now they have been poorly researched and badly represented.  Gilbert’s book goes a long way towards redressing that imbalance, but given the political climate, it seems unlikely that either police recording, political interpretation or media analysis will take any notice of what he has done. It would be terrible to let the facts get in the way of a good story, and even worse to change the social context so that gang colours faded away. Who could we blame then for all our social ills?


Alison Gray is a Wellington social researcher.


Patched was shortlisted for this year’s New Zealand Post Book Awards.


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Posted in History, Non-fiction, Review, Sociology
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